5 current, former UK football players sue Lexington police over 'false charges'
Five current and former University of Kentucky football players who were arrested on burglary charges last year stemming from a fraternity party fight but later had those charges dropped filed lawsuits Wednesday against a Lexington Police Department officer who their attorneys claim "initiated false charges to frame and defame" the student-athletes.
Attorneys with the Chicago-based civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy who are representing R.J. Adams, JuTahn McClain, Andru Phillips, Vito Tisdale and Joel Williams say the "false charges" led to temporary suspensions from the team, damaged their reputations and harmed their football, educational and professional careers.
The federal suits that were filed on behalf of each player in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky name Lexington Police Department Officer Cory Vinlove as a defendant along with Chief Lawrence Weathers, Donnell Gordon, who has served as an officer and spokesman for the department, and Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government.
Claims made in a lawsuit represent one side of a case.
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A UK Athletics spokeswoman said via text that the university has "no comment on pending litigation." Lexington Police Department spokeswoman Hannah Sloan said Vinlove continues to work for the department and that because "this is an open lawsuit, we don't have a comment at this time."
A news release from the law firm noted Vinlove is a University of Louisville graduate and accused him of "making false charges without probable cause following the alleged attack by Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity members, leading to a torrent of social media and other public abuse against the football players."
Adams, Phillips, Tisdale and Williams attended a party in March 2021 hosted by the fraternity at a home on Forest Drive in Lexington. The players and their attorneys claim "members and guests of the fraternity hurled racial slurs toward and physically assaulted some of the young, African American men," with McClain not in attendance.
"Despite learning from the beginning of the investigation that it was members and guests of the fraternity who verbally and physically assaulted the players, Lexington Police Officer Vinlove refused to charge the culpable individuals – the white fraternity members and guests – and instead set out to make a name for himself, initiating false felony charges against the players," said Wednesday's news release from Loevy & Loevy announcing the lawsuits. "To that end, Vinlove fabricated evidence in a sworn affidavit, ignored evidence exculpating the players, and testified falsely to intentionally mislead the judicial system. The Lexington Police Department later issued a nationwide press release including the fabricated allegations against the teammates."
Several months would pass before Adams, an offensive lineman, McClain, a running back, Phillips, a defensive back, Earnest Sanders IV, a wide receiver, Tisdale, a safety, and Williams, a defensive back, were each charged with first-degree burglary in August 2021. Tisdale also was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for "being identified as the suspect pointing a handgun at one of the victims," according to a Lexington Police Department news release.
But the next month, a Fayette County grand jury heard the case and declined to indict any of the players, who were then cleared to return to team activities.
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Tisdale, 21, remains on the team but is out for the 2022 season with an injury. McClain, 20, and Phillips, 20, are playing for the Wildcats this year, while Williams, 20, transferred to Memphis, Adams, 20, transferred to Georgia Tech and Sanders, who is not among the plaintiffs and whose age was not provided, transferred to Saginaw Valley State.
"This lawsuit is another tragic example of the damage caused by corrupt policing in America. It is shocking how Officer Cory Vinlove, in spite of objective evidence and the University of Kentucky's thorough investigation, damaged so many lives. As the lawsuits demonstrate, these five young black men were targeted by a white officer with an axe to grind and determined to make a name for himself," said Elliot Slosar, one of football players' attorneys at Loevy & Loevy.
“I want justice for every day they ran down my name," Tisdale added in Wednesday's release.
The Courier Journal obtained an email from a victim advocate to the party attendees who testified at the grand jury hearing that said the prosecutors presented all the evidence and "gave the jurors all possible indictment options." The grand jury then decided to dismiss the case in its entirety.
According to the police department's initial release, three players entered a residence uninvited where a private party was being held March 6, 2021, and were asked to leave. The players became upset and threatened to return.
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A short time later, the police department's initial release said those three players returned with additional teammates and forced their way into the residence. One player, Tisdale, was reportedly seen pointing a firearm at a victim, according to police.
According to court documents, the players "became involved in a physical altercation with multiple occupants of the residence." The players have alleged the fight was sparked by an unnamed female party attendee calling them racial slurs once they arrived at the house.
The new lawsuits said a white female student "loudly questioned, 'who let the n****** in?'" when Adams and Williams were "welcomed into the home by a male member of the fraternity" between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. on March 7, 2021, and that other white fraternity members and guests also yelled slurs at the players.
Williams was ultimately "jumped" by members of the fraternity before he left through the back door of the house, according to the suit, which says Adams had observed "that most of the 30-50 people in attendance were heavily intoxicated." The suit also notes Adams was invited to the party by a female friend and believed it was an "open invite" party.
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Tisdale arrived at the party as Adams and Williams were trying to leave, but as he walked up to the front door, "he was ambushed, physically assaulted, and called a 'n***** boy,' before leaving and returning to his dorm," according to the suit, which says Tisdale was not armed and "defended himself from the blows being inflicted upon him." Williams and Adams also eventually ran out of the home after defending themselves and at no point had any weapons in their possession, according to the suit.
McClain was at his apartment when he received a text message saying his roommate, Williams, had been "jumped by members of the fraternity," per the suit. McClain started driving to the party location but could not turn on Forest Park Avenue, as law enforcement vehicles were blocking it, so he turned around and drove home, the suit says.
Phillips and Sanders also arrived at the home after hearing Williams had been "jumped," and a female at the doorway yelled at Phillips to leave, the suit says. Phillips asked if her is she was OK and heard male voices yelling racial slurs, the suit adds.
"He did not witness any physical altercation, did not assault anyone, was not assaulted and never saw anyone with a weapon," the lawsuit says. "There less than five minutes, Mr. Phillips walked back through the front yard and left the party."
Less than three weeks later, the suit says Vinlove "fabricated information in a sworn affidavit to a Fayette County District Court Judge to seize the contents of Mr. Adams’ cellphone" and that the officer and his colleagues were "provided with information regarding the accussers' alleged identification process" of Adams and his teammates.
Specifically, the accusers alleged the fraternity members got together, “threw names out” as to individuals they believed may have been present, and "then looked through the football team’s roster to pick out individuals who they thought matched the name and description of those they saw the night of the party," the lawsuits for each player, which include much of the same language, say, claiming Vinlove would eventually swear out a criminal complaint despite having "no probable cause."
Vinlove "even sought to announce his manufactured false charges on the eve of SEC media day to maximize the exposure and attendant embarrassment to the University of Kentucky and its players accused of crimes they did not commit," according to the lawsuits, claiming each player suffered "immense injury" to their reputations, mental health, college experience, education and careers along with their name, image and likeness.
The UK athletics department first became aware of the incident in March 2021.
After initially saying all six players were held from team activities for 11 weeks, a UK spokesman clarified that each of the players was held from team activities once the program learned of their alleged involvement in the incident.
Players returned to the team after they were cleared to do so by a university student conduct board investigating the incident. While the players were active for the start of preseason camp in August 2021, coach Mark Stoops held them out of practices again after the charges were filed, saying he was waiting to learn if the police department had gathered additional evidence that would change the conclusion reached at the student conduct hearing.
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When the players were eventually charged over five months after the incident, Gordon, the Lexington Police Department sergeant and spokesman, put out a news release including the "fabricated allegations" against the players, and the release was picked up and published by national media outlets, including ESPN, the Association Press and ABC News, according to the suit.
If indicted, each player would have faced a minimum of 10 years in prison, the attorneys said.
"We stuck by our players because we believed in them, and we believed at the end of this process they’d be exonerated," Stoops said last year. "And they were.”
According to university documents provided to The Courier Journal through an open records request, eight UK students present at the party were charged with a student conduct violation for "harm and threat of harm." Three students were found responsible for that violation, but names were redacted from the student conduct reports.
Other students were found responsible for violating the university's COVID-19 healthy and safety guidelines. The Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity was placed on probation last year for failure to comply, hazing, misuses of alcohol and violating COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
Tisdale's family later shared a copy of his conduct report that confirmed Tisdale was one of the students found responsible for "harm and threat of harm," but it also concluded "there was not a preponderance of evidence to say with certainty (Tisdale) had a gun."
A UK student who was one of 10 party attendees listed as victims in a Lexington Police Department investigative report previously told The Courier Journal she felt university administrators were "more concerned that people were drinking than girls were getting beat up."
The student said she was punched twice — once on the right arm, once on the hip — by Phillips.
But Phillips’ attorney at the time, Charles Grundy, previously told The Courier Journal his client “didn’t even arrive on the scene until everything was over,” that he carried no weapon, hit no one and that his case “should obviously be dismissed.” Libby Hogan, UK’s assistant director of Student Conduct, arrived at a similar conclusion after meeting with the player, notifying Phillips in a letter dated April 23 proved to the Courier Journal by Phillips' father that he would not be held responsible for a code violation and that witnesses had confirmed “they didn’t see him engaged in fighting.”
The lawsuits, among other requests, seek an unspecified amount of damages and attorneys' fees.
This story has been updated, including to reflect that R.J. Adams transferred to Georgia Tech, not Georgia State.
Reporter Brett Dawson, along with former Courier Journal reporters Jon Hale and Tim Sullivan, contributed to this story. Reach Billy Kobin at email@example.com